It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
They meet at first in the middle of the prairie, holding themselves formally and a little awkwardly, the cavalry officer and Sioux Indians. There should be instant mistrust between them, but they take each other's measure and keep an open mind. A civilized man is a person whose curiosity outweighs his prejudices, and these are curious men.
They know no words of each other's languages. Dunbar, the white man, tries to pantomime a buffalo. Wind in His Hair, a fierce warrior, looks at the charade and says, "His mind is gone." But Kicking Bird, the holy man, thinks he understands what the stranger is trying to say, and at last they exchange the word for "buffalo" in each other's languages. These first halting words are the crucial moments in Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves," a film about a white man who goes to live with Indians and learns their civilization at first hand.
In real life, such contacts hardly ever took place. The dominant American culture was nearsighted, incurious and racist, and saw the Indians as a race of ignorant, thieving savages, fit to be shot on sight. Such attitudes survived until so recently in our society - just look at the B Westerns of the 1940s - that we can only imagine how much worse they were 100 years ago. In a sense, "Dances With Wolves" is a sentimental fantasy, a "what if" movie that imagines a world in which whites were genuinely interested in learning about a Native American culture that lived more closely in harmony with the natural world than any other before or since. But our knowledge of how things turned out - of how the Indians were driven from their lands by genocide and theft - casts a sad shadow over everything.
The movie is a simple story, magnificently told. It has the epic sweep and clarity of a Western by John Ford, and it abandons the contrivances of ordinary plotting to look, in detail, at the way strangers get to know one another. The film is seen from the point of view of Dunbar (Costner), a lieutenant in the Union Army, who runs away from a field hospital as his foot is about to be amputated, and invites death by riding his horse in a suicidal charge at the Confederate lines.